Food for thought


Science is a cumulative process of acquiring greater and ever more accurate knowledge about the world. It is probably safe to say that the average scientist of today knows more about the world than did Galileo or Newton. Richard Dawkins certainly knows more about evolution than Charles Darwin did, simply by dint of coming after him and ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’.

Unlike science, art, literature and music are not cumulative. Today’s art is no better than earlier art. Tracey Emin is not better than Michaelangelo, Alan Bennett is not better than Shakespeare and One Direction is not better than Mozart. Today’s evolutionary biologists build on the earlier work of Darwin, Mendel and others to create a more exact picture of how evolution works. Art, literature and music don’t build on what has gone before, though at times innovations, such as perspective in art, narrative techniques in literature and the use of harmony in music, enrich and improve those fields for all future artists, writers and musicians.

When someone says that one scientific theory is better than a rival theory he means it is closer to the truth. Yet art, literature and music don’t deal in truth. Instead they aim to excite the human nervous system in pleasant and interesting ways. And most people I know are more interested in having their nervous systems tickled than in truth. They want to watch a movie, a football match, a TV program or hear a pop song. They want to be entertained, not informed.

I used to be the same. I didn’t care whether trade unions had too much power or which side was destroying Beirut, or even who the sides were. I didn’t care whether Margaret Thatcher was right about the miners strike, or what the IRA wanted, what Muslims believed or whether free markets are better than central planning. All I wanted was to be entertained until I died.

Then around the age of 30 I became restless with all that and suddenly wanted to understand things better. So I started reading pop science books and watching documentaries, which is how things have continued until now, 25 years later. I now know a lot more than I did and I usually understand the news and have opinions about most things. I am less confused and bored by the world of current affairs.

Yet recently I have started watching movies and reading novels again. Accumulating knowledge is all very well but I’m not a knowledge machine and simply amassing knowledge seems to me no less pointless than wanting to be entertained all day. Perhaps, like breathing in and breathing out, most of us need to be both entertained and informed.


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